How Some Local Businesses Face Operations Amid COVID-19


Innovation, creativity, connection and flexibility are part of a successful entrepreneur’s lifeblood at any time, and they are especially necessary during times of crisis, said panelists at Southface Institute’s June Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable.

At the June 5 event, dedicated to Repurposing Industry in the Face of COVID-19, amid a backdrop of (at that time) 2 million jobs lost in Georgia since March and statewide unemployment at 12.7%, speakers from three Atlanta businesses and Invest Atlanta shared the steps they’ve taken to stay relevant and open during a time of pandemic, economic uncertainty and social unrest.

June 2020 SART Speakers
Top: Matt Debusschere, Ed Smith and Chad Ralston. Bottom: Will Sellers and Willie Miller.

“At Southface, our commitment to the regenerative economy extends to the built environment and also to those communities who continue to suffer due to longstanding social disparities. Each of us continues to be impacted by the global pandemic: every sector, every community, every neighborhood and every one of us,” said event moderator Will Sellers, Southface board member and Executive Director of Wholesome Wave Georgia.

“We have a panel with leaders that will share how their teams, their organizations and their partners are working to address the worst economic environment since the Great Depression and also working in social chasms that remind many of us of the civil rights movement,” said Sellers.

Meeting the Challenge

From Restaurant to Produce Market: Matt DeBusschere manages Sun in My Belly, a small restaurant, café and catering business that determined their response to restaurant closings by considering the priorities of safety, community and staff and how to stay relevant in a pandemic. These considerations led them to shift their focus and become a fresh-air produce market for their neighborhood,  selling the produce and goods they normally would have used for the restaurant. The local community really supported them, and Sun in My Belly decided to continue giving back by opening the Atlanta Small Business Market in part of their restaurant space so that small businesses that had been located inside larger outlets that were now temporarily closed could still sell their goods during this difficult time.

“I think one of the keys to prospering [during a crisis] is to act fast, making a decision and running with it, because if you hesitate too long, someone is going to pass you by. And attention is fleeting, so we tried to our best to maintain a spotlight while the attention was given to us,” said DeBusschere. When they received a little news attention, they promoted it on their social media channels, which led to more media coverage, more articles, more social posts and more media coverage again. “If anyone is wondering how to make their business prosper during this time, absolutely communicate over and over again to your people—people want to know. They want to know what you’re doing differently, what safety precautions you’re taking. Be intentional about where you’re sourcing your products from, about caring for your staff. It’s a time when everyone is asking: What is going on in this world? What is my part in that? And how can I help build my community?” said DeBusschere.

From City Farm Pick-up to Delivery Service, Plus At-Home Farm Boxes: Willie Miller from Miller City Farm has been growing organic produce with his wife Marisa since 2006, and in 2015 they opened a farm that offers organic and sustainably-grown produce, as well as agriculture-STEM education to combat food security and malnutrition in Fulton County, Georgia. At the beginning of the pandemic in March, he had heard that there might be interruptions in food supply chains.

“Being the president of the Food Policy Council [for Fulton County], I was talking with farmers about how we address [possible food shortages and supply chain challenges]. We knew that restaurants and grocery stores would have a solution eventually, because most of them have some form of delivery model they could implement. The challenge is that most farms are not equipped to have a delivery model, so they have needed to gear up and purchase trucks to be able to deliver the products we grew to our consumers,” said Miller.

Miller also saw the opportunity to partner with other organizations to start the Georgia Grow Box Campaign, providing wooden boxes with soil and seed to families in the county for increased food security. To date they have provided 450 boxes so that families can grow their own tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and watermelon.

From Whiskey to Hand Sanitizer: Early in the pandemic, Chad Ralston and the team at ASW Distillery realized their most impactful move would be to switch some operations to producing hand sanitizer, a product that disappeared early in the pandemic. They converted their tasting room to hand sanitizer production and bottling. With their “Get One, Give One” program, they’ve donated the equivalent of 100,000 1-oz. bottles of sanitizer to local hospitals and nonprofits, using large jugs so that medical professionals and employees can refill their own small bottles. They’re also selling whiskey and cocktails to go and take-home whiskey tasting kits.

“[The pandemic] has by and large prompted us to innovate a lot. We very quickly closed off our tasting rooms and created to-go tables. We’re selling retail, hand sanitizer, to-go cocktails and bottles of whiskey. Virtual tastings have been a huge hit. We decant our products into small bottles, and people can come pick up tasting kits, take them home, and then we host virtual tastings where one of us will get on and walk people through each of the products, how we make them, what you can taste in them. We’re grateful to the community for being so support and adapt with us. Now we’re talking about reopening the porch at our main distillery’s tasting room, with a lot of space between each table,” said Ralston.

A Public Partner on a Virtual Platform: Ed Smith from Invest Atlanta, part of the City of Atlanta’s economic development authority, spoke about Federal Opportunity Zones that provide tax incentives to attract private investment to Atlanta, promote initiatives that support small business owners and increase job development in low-income, distressed communities. They work to maximize the social impact of those investments to boost economic mobility, affordable housing and address food and medical deserts.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our organization. We’d hold numerous events serving as a convener or participant, locally and nationally, but due to the pandemic we’re not going to our offices anymore. We’re leveraging our technological capabilities to still conduct outreach. If people don’t know about the tools we have then they are not going to be able to leverage them in their business plan. So we’re transitioning to create an authentic experience virtually, with the hopes that soon we’ll be back out in the community.”

Watch the full video recording of Repurposing Industry in the Face of COVID-19 here.

Join Southface on the first Friday of every month to learn more about environmental and social issues facing the Southeast and beyond, with topics that include sustainability in business and industry, building science, urban planning, government policy and more. Learn more about future Sustainable Atlanta Roundtables here.


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